New East Digital Archive

Kiev or Kyiv?: why is the question of what to call Ukraine’s capital so hard to answer?

Kiev Now: Part One

It is difficult to ignore passionate comments from some of our Ukrainian readers and contributors about the “incorrect” spelling of their capital city

A month or so ago we had a particularly long editorial meeting. Beyond our usual discussion of incoming pitches, keeping us around the table was a debate on our decision to either stick with the “conventional” English spelling of the Ukrainian capital — Kiev — or move to the spelling of the city’s name that best reflects the direct transliteration from its Ukrainian name — Kyiv.

While we had long been aware of the spelling issue, our need to engage with it came sharply into focus when featuring the city’s art biennial, The School of Kyiv, on our site. Would it not look odd, we wondered, to have this event name slap-bang underneath our “Kiev” city tag? And with a special project on the city in the pipeline, a decision on how to spell it needed to be made.

I came into this news editing job as a naive crusader. Stirred by a year of studying Ukrainian, the rousing tones of rock band Okean Elzy and memories of walking across the Maidan littered with gas masks and used petrol bombs, I was not going to let the effort of a nation be in vain: Kiev was going to become Kyiv. But the nervousness born of being new to a job and the realisation that I did not have as air-tight a case as I had hoped meant that, a few months in, our news stories were still taking place in Kiev, without a “y” in sight.

To my mind, both the strongest and the most problematic argument for change lies in the claim that Ukraine itself has asserted that Kyiv is its preferred spelling and has urged the popularisation of that spelling.

Trukhaniv Island

Trukhaniv Island

The Ukrainian government adopted Kyiv as its standard Latinisation in 1995, making Kyiv mandatory for use in legislative and official acts. To equate a government request with popular will, however, seems misguided; an unquestioning equation of the whim of the country’s ruling politicians to the desire of its population appears especially fraught with danger, and frankly inappropriate, when we consider the changes and upheavals that have occurred in Ukraine over the last 20 years.

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This is not to say that there is no popular will for a change of spelling. As we sit around the table, one of our editors brings up her decision to move to the Kyiv spelling in personal correspondence. It is difficult to ignore, she points out, passionate comments from some of our Ukrainian readers and contributors and her Ukrainian friends about the “incorrect” spelling of their capital city in our articles. If it is making some kind of statement to switch to Kyiv on our website, how much more of a statement is it to receive pitches about “Kyiv” and reply with reference to “Kiev”, our email chain a back-and-forth between the two versions of the city? Many people will be angry, she predicts, when we place their work within the context of a project bearing a title that they deem not only to be incorrect, but offensive.

Kiev, on the other hand, is a direct transliteration of the Russian spelling of the city’s name. This provides the main fuel for the argument that this spelling in English represents a relic of Russian domination, in which Ukraine was seen through the prism of Moscow. (It is argued by some that Kiev, in fact, reflects the original, Old East Slavic spelling of the city’s name. This language, an ancestor of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian, was used from the 10th to the 14th centuries in Kievan Rus and its successor states.)

“Why shouldn’t the media use Kiev?” we ponder. We do, after all, say Munich, not München, and Rome, not Roma

The request by the Ukrainian government for Kyiv to become the standard English spelling has been successful to an extent, with the US Board on Geographic Names approving the spelling and the White House and UK Foreign Office, among others, using it.

However, English-speakers are by and large still more familiar with Kiev. This is due, in part, to almost every major news organisation sticking with the conventional spelling. The BBC, Reuters, The New York Times and The Associated Press are just some of the big names that continue to use Kiev. Presumably in part because they fear that their readers are unfamiliar with the Ukrainian spelling. As our marketing manager points out, people simply aren’t searching for Kyiv like they are for Kiev. Kyiv could cost us dearly if our stats take a hit.

“Why shouldn’t the media use Kiev?” we ponder. We do, after all, say Munich, not München, and Rome, not Roma. While it may be erroneous to insist that Kiev is “the Russian spelling”, which sets up a false dichotomy between “Ukrainian” and “Russian” spellings, insisting on the other hand that it is simply the international or English spelling (with an implied “end of story”), is an equally flawed approach. Such an argument is often put forward by those who wish to cast the whole question as irrelevant and brush aside any aversion to the spelling as unfounded or even petty. While their line of thinking is logical enough, this one-size-fits-all argument seems insufficient in its over-simplicity and reluctance to engage with the particularities of the situation. Nobody is talking, for example, about a conflict (of words or otherwise) between Italian and English speakers, as they are about tensions between Ukrainian and Russian speakers.

Is this discussion perpetuating the very narrative it seeks to dismantle?

Herein lies a pitfall: is this discussion perpetuating the very narrative it seeks to dismantle?

I spoke to Dr Rory Finnin, Head of the Department of Slavonic Studies and Director of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge, about the issue. While Dr Finnin believes that we should respect the request of the Ukrainian government regarding spelling, he stresses that our focus on the question is “indulgent and unhelpful” and risks “disastrous consequences”.

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“Deliberating whether to base a transliteration off the Russian or Ukrainian spelling risks legitimising these language politics — not to mention Russian disinformation, which cartoonishly pits Ukrainian speakers against Russian speakers — at the wrong time. […] Engaging now in an either-or discussion about the transliteration of the capital sends the wrong message about what we should have learned about Ukraine over the past two years,” he says.His words speak to my naivety. I am left to question: is my fervent endorsement of Kyiv fuelling a misguided sense of “fighting the good fight”, while both missing the point and even being harmful?

For now, while we are sensitive to the issues involved, we are sticking with Kiev at The Calvert Journal. From where we are sitting in London it makes sense to use the accepted international spelling as it best serves our aims of reaching a global English-speaking audience.

But this is an uncomfortable resting place; our discussion is not ended but suspended, no doubt until our next Kiev project.

Text: Elise Morton
Image: Egor Rogalev
Date: 5 November, 2015